329th Meeting – Tuesday, January 11th 2011

“What’s What in a Wat”

A talk presentation and book launch by Carol Stratton

Present: Guy Cardinal, Peter Kouisenberg, Kay Calavan, Bob and Fran German, Vithi Phanichphant, Paul Mahoney, Karin Bode, Celeste Holland, Bob Stratton, Don and Nancy Swearer, Louis Gabaude, Bonnie Brereton, Dorothy Portch, Judy and Dale Harcourt, James Bogle, Sarah Miller, Jennifer Davis, Colm Kavanagh, Miaka Klankien, Lynne Gentle, Margaret Deelman, Martha and John Butt, Philip Barnes, Victoria Kirkwood, Sebastien Tayac, Sumanatsya Voharn, Angela Srisomwongwathana, Eleanor Broad, E.J. Haas, Louise McKay, David Williams, Reinhard Hohler, Cinda Rankin, Dianne and Mark Barber-Riley, Christa Xluensch, Lamar and Chongchit Sripan Robert, Phyllis Stolp, Cheron Gelber, Zita Clarke, Joyce Barnes, Brenda Joyce, John Cadet. An audience of 48 + a few more. 

A summary of her talk and presentation compiled by Carol: 


 A Thai Buddhist monastery can be beautiful but mystifying in its complexity. The eye is assaulted by myriad shapes, sizes, and colors. To further complicate matters, many architectural elements incorporate not only Buddhist but Hindu and animistic characteristics. Thus the purpose of the lecture is to guide the viewer through a generic Thai temple - to identify the major structures, understand their function, and learn the meaning behind the forms. Many of the illustrations are taken from wats in Chiang Mai and many of the photos were taken by my husband Bob Stratton.

Considering the complexity of the material it would be helpful to ask some basic questions and give some basic answers before starting in on the wat itself.

What is a wat

A wat is a Thai Buddhist monastery complex.

What is the purpose of a wat? 

The primary purpose is to house Buddhist monks and to help them become better Buddhists. The secondary purpose is to interact with the community.

Who are the monks?  

The monks are supposed to be men of sound mind and body who are over 20 years old and who want to follow the Path of the Buddha. But many other reasons may play a role. It is commonly believed by Thais that by becoming a monk, a man can accrue merit in the hopes of a better rebirth. He should have a sponsor and ask permission from his family to enter the monkhood. Often the Thai monk will dedicate the merit of this action to his mother, who, because she is a woman, can not enter the monkhood. Qualified foreigners can also become monks in Thailand

Before joining the monastic community, the man shaves his head and facial hair including eyebrows and dons the orange or maroon monastic robes which consist of three pieces of un-tailored cloth, just as the Buddha did over 2,500 years ago. The monk will try to observe the 227 “rules for training the mind” of which the best known deal with celibacy, abstinence, poverty and respectful obedience. Monks are supposed to lead austere lives: generally they are awakened at four in the morning, leave the wat around six for their rounds of the neighborhood with their "begging bowls," then back to the wat by eight for breakfast, and their final meal must be finished by twelve. In principle, the rest of the time is spent in chanting, studying, meditation, and doing monastic chores until bedtime.

The wat is presided over by an abbot; ideally a monk of venerable years and practice, but today the position is often filled by a younger monk. The wat may house novices, young boys usually under twenty, who also shave their heads and wear monk’s robes but who have fewer rules to observe. They reside at the wat for schooling and to train in basic monastic discipline. In the olden days, this was the basic education given to young Thai males. Nowadays, the novices are composed mainly of poor or very devout boys. A nun is a woman who shaves her head, dresses in white, and lives in a separate location. She has neither the status nor follows as many rules as a monk. As monks should not have any physical contact with women, a woman should not touch a Buddhist monk, even when making a donation.

The wat is also a Buddhist center where both the monks and the laity can pay respect to the Triple Gem of Buddhism. In Buddhist thinking, a "gem" or "jewel" refers to something precious and valuable. The Triple Gem of Buddhism consists of:

1. The Buddha, the great Sage who is generally thought to have lived and taught in the 6th C. B.C. in northern India

2. The Dharma: the teachings of the Buddha

3. The Sangha: the community of Buddhist monks

The community can pay respect to the Triple Gem at anytime but especially on Wan Phra or sacred days which come four times a month based on the lunar calendar of the full, waning, waxing and no moon. Also special Buddhist ceremonies are held throughout the year such as the end of Buddhist lent at which time the villagers give food, robes and necessities (like soap and razor) to the monks.

The wat is also a community center. It can be a medical dispensary, a festival site, a clock or timer, an unemployment or news bureau, a parking lot, an animal shelter (people leave of their unwanted pets knowing that the monks will feed them), a hostel (men may stay overnight), a site for making a Buddha image, having a horoscope read, purchasing amulets or having them blessed. Indeed, the wat plays a vital role in the community. In turn the community feeds the monks every morning as the monks make their way single file, barefoot and holding their alms bowl. The monks are not “begging” - by feeding the monks the donor is making merit (tham boon). Laypeople can also make merit by donating time or money for wat upkeep, thereby purportedly freeing the monks to spend more time in meditation and study.

The importance or size of a wat often depends upon the community with which it is associated and/or its sponsor. For example a wat in a small poor village might have only an assembly hall and monk's quarters. In contrast, Thailand's most important wat, The Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok has a wealth of structures and is sponsored by royalty. Further, a wat might be important because it houses a renowned relic (a phra that) which will show up in its name i.e. Wat Phra That Lampang Luang. Also, a wat might be notable if it has been associated with an auspicious founding, such as the Buddha's legendary visit to the site. In actuality, the Buddha who is generally thought to have lived and taught in the 6th C., B.C. never left India.

So that is basic background on the purpose and function of a wat. Now we will explore the main structures to be found within a wat and talk about their function, their distinguishing architectural characteristics, and the symbolism behind the forms.

Ground Plan of a Wat: Wall, gates

Assembly Hall (wihan)

Ordination Hall (ubosot, bot)

Stupa (chedi)


Gong, Drum structure

Pavilion housing Sacred Object (mondop)

Image House

Open pavilion (sala)

Spirit house(s)

Sacred Tree (bo or bodhi tree)

Cloister walkway

Monk's and Abbot's Quarters (kuti)

Well, kitchen, toilet, bathing facilities

Guardians of the Wat

Hindu Gods

Mythical Beings

The Buddha and his image

 Carol Stratton

 After an extremely informative and entertaining presentation and question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where Carol continued in more informal discussions with members of the audience over drinks and snacks.

Future meetings:

330th Meeting – Tuesday, January 18th 2011

Killing the Mekong Dam by Dam 
Directed by Tom Fawthrop

A Eureka Film Production
A film presentation and talk

331st Meeting – Tuesday, January 25th 2011. 19.30

“Art and Community in Cambodia

A talk and presentation by Phare Ponleu Selpak, the Cambodian Theatre Group